First Flight Over Mill Valley
On December 19, 1911, hundreds of people including Homestead residents waited near the Locust Station on Miller Ave. to see a flying machine. It had been eight years since Orville and Wilbur Wright had successfully controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight in their flying machine on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway Co. had earlier offered a prize of $1000 to anyone who would fly over the tavern on top of Mt. Tam. Since there were no takers because it was deemed to be too dangerous, the offer was withdrawn. But Weldon Cooke had taught himself how to fly that summer, and he couldn’t resist the challenge, prize or no prize. The crowd had learned about the planned flight from the news papers. They had a good view of Mt. Tam and were eager to see him and his flying machine.
The unusual plane, named The Diamond, was built by two young men with no experience in flying. Cooke sat in a chair in front of the engine and the propeller behind it, his feet on a bar and his hands on a steering wheel. Control levers were under his arms. Biplane wings, elevators and ailerons were canvas covered. Landing gear consisted of three bicycle wheels.
Cooke’s original plan was to fly from Oakland, circle over Mt. Tam, cross the Golden Gate, continue down Market Street to the bay and head back to Oakland. Things worked out differently. He started late, taking off at 3:46 pm to avoid strong winds. San Francisco was fogged in. When he flew over U.C. Berkeley, he dropped two letters from the plane—one for his brother and the other for University President Benjamin Ide Wheeler—their first air mail letters. Wheeler’s letter read as follows: “Greetings from the alumnus who has gone highest in his profession, 7000 feet. It is good to be here. Weldon B. Cooke, ’07 University of California, elevation 4200 feet. Tuesday December 19, 4:15 pm.”
Cooke then flew over the bay at 4200 feet and dropped down over San Quentin, but fog blocked the expectant prisoners from seeing him. He start
whistle. But it was getting dark, the wind was increasing, and he was getting cold. He feared frozen fingers, toes and face.
As he flew toward Mill Valley the engine failed. Without power, he glided in a circular motion, dropping to 2000 feet in 2 minutes. He knew the Mill Valley area fairly well, having visited his sister-in-law’s home there more than once. He managed an emergency landing in a muddy marshy area near where Sycamore Park is today. He was not injured and the plane suffered little damage. It was 5:06 pm when he landed—the official sunset was 4:53 pm, but the sun had gone down behind Mt. Tam earlier. He walked to the home of his sister-in-law, Mrs. S. H. Buttner, “just in time for dinner” according to the press.
He probably crossed the creek on the Locust bridge and encountered the crowd of onlookers at Locust Station before stopping at Manual Fostine’s house on the corner of Willow and Miller where he made a long distance phone call to Oakland to say he had safely landed. The editor of the Mill Valley Record-Enterprise stated, “The alighting of the airship in Mill Valley was one of the best advertisements the Town ever had.”
Three days later Cooke managed to take off and fly The Diamond back to Oakland bucking treacherous winds. The headline in the Call Bulletin read, “Death Rides Plane as Cooke Battles in Air. Unable to Turn Back, Intrepid Aviator is Forced to Fly in Teeth of Gale.” Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when he landed safely.
One can view the reassembled Diamond at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California. A plaque near East Peak on Mt. Tamalpais is dedicated to Cooke and the first flight over the mountain.
If you have comments or questions about this article or other topics pertaining to the history of Homestead Valley,
please feel free to e-mail Chuck Oldenburg.